Why Wisconsin Resists Clean Energy
State lags the Midwest in renewable energy, yet suddenly making great progress.
That was in January 2017, and since then there’s been a veritable revolution, as dramatic declines in the price of solar and wind have pushed power companies, businesses and homeowners to embrace renewable energy. The Madison-based utility Alliant Energy plans to plans to spend $2 billion in the renewable sector between 2016 and 2020, as Lee Bergquist reported for the Journal Sentinel, while We Energies leader Gale Klappa noted that the company will be relying far more on solar, because the price for it has dropped nearly 70 percent in recent years.
“We’ve hit a tipping point in Wisconsin,” says Tyler Huebner, executive director of Renew Wisconsin. “We expect continued increases in renewable energy.”
Another report, back in March, by the Institute for Self-Reliance, ranked the states on how their energy policies helped or hindered local clean energy action and gave Wisconsin a grade of “F”, in 33rd place among the 50 states. “The state has just two policies encouraging local [clean energy] power,” the study found.
In the nearly eight years Walker has served as governor, he has expressed no interest in renewable energy, while garnering huge donations from fossil fuel tycoons the Koch brothers. Wisconsin had begun to attract companies looking to do wind power, but a law passed by Walker and the Republicans in 2011 delayed any development for a year. Members of the state Public Service Commission appointed by Walker have been unfriendly to alternative energy. The PSC approved a plan by We Energies to charge a fee for homeowners installing solar power, which would have discouraged solar installation.
But the courts overruled the fee and that has helped make it easier to solar power. “We feel there’s more predictability than we’ve had for years in the regulatory environment for solar,” Huebner notes.
Meanwhile some conservatives in Wisconsin have begun to embrace renewable energy as the prices have declined. Perhaps that — and the change in direction by the big utilities — explains why the PSC has suddenly become more interested in alternative energy. After reducing funding for the Focus on Energy program that provides rebates to customers installing alternative energy, the PSC did an about face and increased the funding from $4 million per year to $5.5 million annually.
Perhaps the two biggest coal warriors in Wisconsin were Walker and longtime We Energies CEO Gale Klappa, under whose watch the company is radically changing direction. Late last year the company announced it would shut down its coal-fired plant in Pleasant Prairie while essentially replacing the lost power with new solar farms.
And now We Energies and Alliant Energy have both announced separate pledges with the same goal: to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent from 2005 levels by 2050. Some of that will be done by switching from coal to cleaner-burning and cheaper gas, but both companies also intend to aggressively pursue alternative energy.
Besides its ever-lower price, solar is attractive because it’s “an option that also fits well with our summer peak demand curve and with our plan to significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions,” Klappa noted in a speech quoted in the JS story.
As Daniel Krueger, the company’s senior vice president, told the newspaper: “I think that it is fair to say, going forward, it’s going to be solar, wind, batteries and some natural gas.”
Walker has yet to make any statements saluting the switch by the state’s big utilities — which will have obvious health benefits as emissions are lowered, and help the state economy by giving more business to solar and wind-power companies.
“It does present a big opportunity for jobs and economic development in the state,” Huebner notes.
Meanwhile he expects the tension between liberals and conservatives on alternative energy to melt away. “Now you get the environmental benefits of clean energy at no added cost,” he notes. “So there’s not a loser here. So that changes the dynamics entirely. That’s helping de-politicize it.”
But Wisconsin will still be playing catch up for years to come, because most other states are far ahead in embracing the huge opportunity of clean energy. That’s the price we pay for eight years of hostility to the renewable energy industry by the man who declared Wisconsin “open for business.” .
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